The November 2001 meeting of the Niagara Falls Nature Club
marked the 35th anniversary of the founding of our club.
The following article by Gus Yaki, our first president,
appeared in the 20th Anniversary issue of Niagara Nature
On this, the 20th Anniversary, it might be of interest for present Club members to know why and how the Niagara Falls Nature Club was formed.
Indirectly it began because one member, Mary Moses, wrote a letter to the editor of the Niagara Falls Review.
In early 1966, the Niagara Falls city council was searching for a Canadian centennial project. To their credit, they proposed acquiring the Von Mueller property on the Niagara escarpment, for a sum of about $60,000.00 as a nature park. (This later became the Niagara Parks Conservation Area, Woodend Conservation Area, obtained for about six times the original cost).
Unfortunately, an aldermanic candidate mounted a campaign of criticism. Council then dropped the idea and settled for a glass and mental park, which is apparently costly to maintain, and which few residents have seen.
To her credit, Mary Moses was the only person to raise her pen in defence of the original proposal. In talking to others, I know she was not alone. Most of us, particularly naturalists, are too conservative to take a stand on political issues. However, I had been disturbed by various assaults on our natural environment, such as the destruction of the last stand of Common Bearberry in the Niagara Peninsula by the Niagara Parks Commission. Even more so was witnessing industries throwing their waste over the factory fence, figuratively speaking.
I felt that an organized group would be more effective in countering such situations. Especially, a well informed group that had learned to know and love the natural features of their area. Having recently moved here from Lindsay, Ontario, where the Nature Club had grown to 100 members out of 10,000 population, I realised that Niagara Falls, with 60,000 residents, had the potential for a large club. It was one of the last centres in Ontario without such a club.
Gathering some interested people together to serve as officers, including Howard Martin as Secretary-Treasurer, and the late Roy Sheppard as Honorary President, we called the first public meeting for November 15, 1966. 86 people were in attendance. 42 memberships were signed up that evening(representing over 60 people) and the Club was off to a fast start. I wish you all the very best for the years ahead.
Two items in Gus's article caught my attention. First was the reference to a letter written by Mary Moses, mother of present director Rhonda Armstrong, in defence of the proposed acquisition of the Von Mueller property, which later became Woodend Conservation Area. Second was the reference to the destruction of the last stand of Common Bearberry in the Niagara Peninsula by the Niagara Parks Commission.
Gus felt that an organised, well informed group that had learned to know and love the natural features of their area would be most effective in advocating on behalf of our local natural environment. This was the founding ethic of our nature club.
By coincidence, two months before coming across Gus's article, I had written in the St. Catharines Standard that, although the first mandate of the NPC was to maintain, preserve and enhance, the focus of the commission has been to establish formal gardens and mowed boulevards. When it comes to our botanical heritage, for the most part, we obliterate it.
Shortly thereafter, I received a letter from Deborah Whitehouse, Senior Director of Parks for the NPC, expressing her disappointment with my article and setting the record straight on the positive actions of Niagara Parks. Some examples she noted are:
-restoration of Usher's Creek;
-commencement of rehabilitation of the treed moraine(slope) of Queen Victoria Park and negotiation of preservation/rehabilitation with adjacent stakeholders;
-partnership with Niagara College, resulting in restoration studies on Paradise Grove, the Chinquapin Oak Savannah and Gonder's Flats in cooperation with Niagara College's Post Graduate Restoration Ecology Program along with plans for implementation;
-pilot programming in Ecological Based Pest Management, i.e. work toward our goal of total elimination of pesticide use and replacement with an ecosystem-based pest management strategy(cheers on this one!!! WL);
-participation in the Red Mulberry Recovery Project;
-establishment of a partnership with Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority and a demonstration project to enhance a section of the southern parkway with a native wildflower and shrub planting to deter Canada Geese and restore the riparian habitat.
This is all good news, part of what Parks Chairman, Brian Merrett, calls "the preening of the Parks." ("Greening" couldn't refer to golf greens, could it? Whoops, can't have cynicism!) We have indeed much to be proud of in our Niagara Parks, especially when we view the degradation in other jurisdictions.
However, there are varying degrees of degradation. My notation of the obliteration of our botanical heritage was not made casually, but was based on historical records and the descriptions of those whose expertise I respect, as well as my own observations.
Steve Varga's 1993 Reconnaissance Survey of the Niagara Gorge Area of Scientific Interest noted, "Over the last 100 years the Niagara River Gorge and its environs have experienced a serious decline in biodiversity.... Sixty-four percent of its historically present rare plant species have also disappeared, with the largest losses occurring in the open oak woodlands west of the gorge which once stretched from the Whirlpool to Queenston Heights. These losses are attributable to:(1) changes in forest composition following logging and fires, (2) development of formal parkland and (3) the construction of hydro-electric facilities..."
George Hamilton's 1943 Plants of the Niagara Parks System of Ontario includes descriptions of the abundance of hundreds of native species along the Parkway which are now scarcely to be found.
I referred also to the comments of others:
-Connie Kitney, charter member of the Niagara Falls Nature Club, has spoken often of the abundance of orchids that used to grow along the rim of the gorge, that have long since disappeared under constant mowing.
-George Myers, tree expert in Grimsby, has spoken of a healthy mature red mulberry, removed in Wintergreen Flats to make way for the current pavilion.
-Doug Larson, University of Guelph researcher into the ancient cedars of the Niagara Escarpment, has noted the loss of ancient eastern white cedars in the 1959 blasting of the overhang in the Niagara Glen, while recognizing that it was done in the interest of public safety. In a 1995 presentation to the Niagara Falls Nature Club, Dr. Larson urged us to advocate the restoration of the cliff ecology of the Niagara Glen through the planting of cedars along the rim. We have done nothing.
-Bill Snowden, former director of the School of Horticulture, has spoken of the wintergreen from which Wintergreen Flats gets its name, that used to grow along the gorge rim. The wintergreen disappeared along with the ancient cedars.
-native grasses and wildflowers that thrived along the pathway south of the Sir Adam Beck power plant have in the last few years been regularly mowed.
-and let us not forget Gus Yaki's reference to the destruction of the last stand of Common Bearberry in the Niagara Peninsula by the NPC.
It is easy to be seduced by beauty (Winston Churchill described the Niagara Parkway as the prettiest Sunday drive in Canada); we in the Nature Club know and value also the rare beauty in the native Carolinian species of Niagara and recognize that it is too quickly disappearing in the guise of enhancement. Let us applaud the decision makers for their initiatives towards preservation and restoration, and let us urge them ever further in the celebration of our botanical heritage, as we remember the ethic upon which our nature club was found.